Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fleeing the frigid winter

Record number of Winnipeggers filed through airport seeking sun, surf

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Zipolite, Mexico

JODY KURASH / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge Image

Zipolite, Mexico

The coldest winter in 116 years was good for at least one thing -- it helped spur a record number of Manitobans to fly out of Richardson International to seek refuge in the sun.

More than 137,000 Winnipeggers showed up at the airport this January, February and March with tickets punched for Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica -- and pretty much anywhere that had sand, tropical drinks, golf courses and scuba diving. That's up 5.6 per cent from a year ago.

"We had more flights to more (sun) destinations than we've ever had," said Barry Rempel, president and CEO of the Winnipeg Airports Authority.

Sunwing, for example, added Freeport, Bahamas, to its list of direct destinations out of the Manitoba capital.

The number of flights to Mexico by a number of providers was also "very strong," Rempel said, and WestJet recently celebrated its one-year anniversary of service to Palm Springs, Calif.

"It's no good just having a cold winter if you don't have enough flights to get people to the beaches," he said.

Neither Air Canada nor WestJet release its passenger numbers to specific destinations for competitive reasons. WestJet spokesman Robert Palmer said it flies from Winnipeg to Las Vegas, Orlando, Palm Springs, Phoenix, Cabo, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta and Montego Bay during the winter.

"It's hard to say which one is the most popular, but certainly there's a lot to be said for quick getaways in the winter, meaning Vegas, Palm Springs and Phoenix. If you're looking to escape winter for a weekend, you can easily get there and back," he said.

Overall, there were 896,052 people flying out of or into Winnipeg during the quarter. That's up 1.1 per cent from the same three-month period a year ago, according to the WAA's first-quarter report.

Traffic would have been even higher in Winnipeg if it weren't for the competition from the Grand Forks International Airport, which touts its low fares to U.S. destinations such as Orlando, Las Vegas, New York and Mexico, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic.

Rempel said the falling loonie -- it has been trading around 90 cents for a few months -- has been a "blessing in disguise" for the WAA as it has caused airfares out of Grand Forks to rise.

A GFIA spokeswoman said she couldn't provide specific numbers of Winnipeggers travelling out of Grand Forks, but she did say the percentage of its passengers with a "Canadian zip code" has hovered just below 50 per cent both for the just-completed quarter and the last 12 months.

It also helped that the Grand Winnipeg Airport Hotel, arguably the city's swankiest hotel, opened during the quarter. Rempel said he is on the lookout for many more tenants on the airport "campus" because the more rent the WAA receives, the more it is able to lower costs to carriers. That, in turn, should lead to lower airfares out of Winnipeg, he said.

WAA revenues for the quarter were $25.5 million, up from $22.6 million a year ago while earnings before interest, depreciation and taxes remained the same at $11.2 million.

geoff.kirbyson@freepress.mb.ca

So now that it's established winters are getting worse, will you be booking a warm-weather vacation next year? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 25, 2014 A8

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